Fast and Furious — Nine Amazing Facts About The Six Day War

By Steven Pressfield

HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHY Israelis bristle when the term “pre-’67 borders” is brought up as part of a suggested solution to the Palestinian dilemma? Or why the issue of “settlements” has become such a flashpoint for Israeli-Arab relations? Both date directly to the Six Day War of June 5 to 10, 1967.

During the brief but decisive clash, Israel utterly routed the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in less than a week, despite being outnumbered nearly three-to-one in men, planes and tanks. It was one of the most spectacular underdog victories in the history of warfare, stunning the world but creating a series of problems that continue to bedevil Arab-Israeli relations to this day.

Among the items still at issue are borders. For many Israelis, the idea of returning to pre-’67 national boundaries (where Israel’s waist was only nine miles wide) is out of the question. Yet the Arab states and many in the West, including the U.S., continue to press for this.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Second, there’s the West Bank. To the Arab world and much of the West, the 2,000 square-mile region is an “occupied territory” and thus illegal under international law. Yet to many Israelis, the West Bank was captured legitimately from Jordan, which, along with its allies Egypt and Syria, was poised to attack Israel with the intention of wiping the tiny nation off the map.

And let’s not forget Jerusalem. Israel took back the Old City (which had been in Jordanian hands) in the 1967 conflict, liberating many of the Jewish people’s most sacred sites, including the Wailing Wall. “We have returned to our holiest places,” said minister of defense Moshe Dayan, “never to part from them again.” That’s still the Israeli position. Yet to the Arabs and much of the international community, Jerusalem is potentially the capital of a future Palestinian state.

With the effects of the Six Day War still dogging the 21st Century peace process, it’s no surprise that the nearly 50-year-old conflict still continues to fascinate. Here are nine little-known (and amazing) facts about the Six Day War.

It was a tempest in a teacup

An IDF Sherman tank in action in the Sinai. The front lines in the Six Day War were minutes from Tel Aviv by car. (Image source: Jewish Virtual Library)

An IDF Sherman tank in action in the Sinai. The front lines in the Six Day War were minutes from Tel Aviv by car. (Image source: Jewish Virtual Library)

Israel is very small geographically; it’s about the size of New Jersey. At the war’s outset, the Israeli capital was well within range of enemy guns. Jordan’s border east of Tel Aviv was so close that Arab artillerymen could easily see the city and the Mediterranean beyond. Similarly, an Israeli soldier stationed along the Sinai could get in a car and drive home to Tel Aviv in two hours, while an Egyptian bomber taking off from Cairo could strike the Jewish city in less than half an hour. That’s how short the distances are.

It was a David vs. Goliath war

The Arabs outgunned Israel two to one. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Arabs outgunned Israel two to one. (Image source: WikiCommons)

When war erupted in ’67, Israel had a largely reservist army. The IDF could field just three regular force brigades consisting of roughly 50,000 troops. The additional 200,000 soldiers it would throw into battle were part-timers. Egypt’s army was 240,000 strong while Syria, Jordan and Iraq had a combined total of 307,000 men.

Israel had an ad hoc army

Israeli recon in the Sinai. (image source: WikiCommons)

Israeli recon in the Sinai. (image source: WikiCommons)

The Israeli army had precious few trucks or troop transports available. Commanders were forced to mobilize civilian vehicles at the war’s outset. The paratroop brigade that captured the Old City of Jerusalem was ferried to battle aboard school buses and tourist coaches. And like the 1914 Battle of the Marne, even taxis were called up for service. So were fire trucks. In fact, one of the great fears in Tel Aviv during the brief but savage war was how to put out fires if Egyptian bombers struck the city; virtually all the emergency vehicles had been commandeered by the army.

It was the original Shock and Awe war

IAF warplanes caught the Egyptian air force on the ground, kicking off the Six Day War with a bang. (Image source: WikiCommons)

IAF warplanes caught the Egyptian air force on the ground, kicking off the Six Day War with a bang. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Six Day War opened with a dramatic pre-emptive air strike by Israel. In 1967, tensions between Tel Aviv and the Arab world, which had been simmering since the 1956 war, had reached a boiling point. With enemy troops massing on its borders, Israel committed virtually all of its warplanes to an early morning attack on 11 Egyptian air bases. The sorties were devastating; most of Egypt’s warplanes never got off the ground. Amazingly, Israel had no bombers to use in the attack. The all-or-nothing raid was carried out entirely by fighter planes. The IDF followed up with a ground offensive into the Sinai while simultaneously striking into Syrian and Jordanian territory in the north and east. Within a week, Israel held driven the enemy from the Golan Heights and the West Bank and had secured vast new lands.

It put Israeli arms in the spotlight

Moshe Dayan (center) and Yitzhak Rabin (second from right) in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Moshe Dayan (center) and Yitzhak Rabin (second from right) in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The speed and ferocity of the Israeli war effort astounded the world. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s black eye patch became probably the most recognizable symbol of the Israeli military in press and TV coverage of the Six Day War. Dayan lost his eye in Lebanon not fighting Arabs, but Vichy French during World War Two. In 1941, the 26-year-old, former native of Ottoman Palestine was part of the Allied force that liberated Lebanon and Syria from the Axis. The wound was inflicted when a bullet fired by a French sniper struck a pair of binoculars that Dayan was holding to his eyes.

The Jewish State stood alone

Israel’s putative allies — England, France, and the U.S. — sent no aid of any kind. In fact, France cut off all arms shipments to Israel.

Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall.

Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall.

Israel’s “Holy Warriors” weren’t that religious

Although the Six Day War was fought on ground where three of the world’s great religons intersect, a surprising number of combatants weren’t all that overly devout. In fact, when Israeli paratroopers captured the Wailing Wall on June 7, 1967, many of them were so untutored in their own faith that they did not even know how to pray. A common scene at the wall that day was one soldier teaching another the proper way to offer a Jewish prayer. The Wailing Wall (or more accurately the “Western Wall”) is not, as many people believe, a wall of Solomon’s Temple, which was built around 900 B.C. It’s a retaining wall of the mount on which the Great Temple once stood (the “Temple Mount.”)

It was short but bloody

Israeli troops look out over Jerusalem. (Image source: The Jewish Virtual Library)

Israeli troops look out over Jerusalem. (Image source: The Jewish Virtual Library)

After six days of heavy fighting, Israeli casualties were between 776 and 983 killed; approximately 4,500 were wounded. Egypt suffered between 9,800 and 15,000 killed, wounded or MIA, 4,300 captured. Estimates for Jordan are about 700 killed, 2,500 wounded. Syria lost a thousand killed. Total Arab states’ losses: between 13,200 and 23,500 killed and more than 5,500 captured.

As many as 46 Israeli aircraft were destroyed in action out of about 240. The IDF also lost 800 tanks. The Arab states’ tally was 452 planes and hundreds of tanks destroyed.

The legacy of ‘67 is with us still

The Six Day War set the stage for decades of conflict between Israel and the Arab world. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Six Day War set the stage for decades of conflict between Israel and the Arab world. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Six Day War left Israel in control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, not to mention Gaza and the West Bank, leading to decades of sectarian turmoil. Ironically, prior to the 1967 war, Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories never referred to themselves as “Palestinians”. Locals were identified as “Arabs” or in the case of the West Bank “Jordanian Arabs.” Yasser Arafat, chief of the guerilla organization Fatah, is credited with coining the term in its contemporary understanding.


1595231196steve-pressfield-3Steven Pressfield is the author of The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War (now available in paperback). A best-selling historical author, Pressfield’s 1998 novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, was a critical and commercial success and is required reading at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. His other books include The Warrior Ethos, Killing Rommel, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, the film of which was directed by Robert Redford and starred Will SmithMatt Damon and Charlize Theron. You can follow him on Twitter here.



4 comments for “Fast and Furious — Nine Amazing Facts About The Six Day War

  1. Steinner
    28 May, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    This is hardly a professional analysis nor an objective one. Israel maintained the most professional and combat ready force in the Middle East and perhaps the world. Being able to mobilize and send 250,000 men into combat within 48 hours is a feat few nations can match.

    I also tire of the bean counter approach to warfare. The Italians attacked from Libya outnumbering the British by at least 9-1 odds in men, and with overwhelming superiority in all other categories. Men, training, doctrine, and leadership count, not beans. The Italians were crushed. Exactly how motivated were the Iatlains?

    Having lived in the Middle East, Arab nationalism is a myth. Loyalities are tribal not national. With the exception of the Arab Legion none of the Arab forces were professional or well trained in a Western sense. Worse Arab forces were draftees, wretchtedly educated, ill trained, poorly motivated, and undisciplined. Anyone who bet on the Arabs pre 1967 might be interested in drinking some Mexican tap water or kissing my honey badger.

    The Arab forces with the exception of Jordan, were modelled on the Soviets. Cumbersome, designed to bash through their enemies and accept huge losses. Unfortunately, such methods lost the Russians over 25 million dead in WW2, but after all a police state can afford such losses. And the mentality of the Arab leaders are closer to Stalin than they are to any Western leader.

    Had the author examined the wretched command and control that denied the Arabs of any chance to coordinate their forces or perform with any semblance of professionalism or effectiveness I might have considered this article worthy of some merit. Nothing is said of how awful the NCO class was and is within the Muslim world, where iniative and responsibility are unknown-in fact the same problems extend through the officer class. The Arab answer to everything appears to be “its God’s will.”

    Their performance has improved from disasterous to its current wretched state. After the Iraq-Iran war we witnessed the state of Muslim professionalism and command and control. Logistics are beyond them. Joint operations are also an unknown with the exception of their special forces. Their Air Forces make excellent targets and with the exception of Russian manned anti aircraft missile units posed no thread to the Israelis.

    Finally, it rather unusual for a power to deliver a sneak attack and then lose a war with such limited spaces and objectives involved but the Arabs did it in 1973. Not so much because of their skills, though they demonstrated an impressive increase in their capabilities since 1967, but rather due to the insular thinking and arrogance of Tel Aviv’s strategists which ignored the basic rules of war, believing that they didn’t apply to Israel. The smashed wreckage of two armored brigades dmeonstrated the failure of Israel’s doctrine and failure to adapt in 1973. Contrat this with the effectiveness of their planning, preparation, and doctrine in 1967.

    The ability of Israel to triumph should be examined through the facets of training, planning, logistics, command and control, intelligence, and doctrine, rather than to attribute it to some special pixie dust.

    • 28 May, 2015 at 6:33 pm

      Thanks for the input and personal insights. All good points to be sure — particularly the bits about the Soviet style command & control of the Arab states and the quality of their recruits. Your remarks bring to mind a Victor Davis Hanson’s book from about 10 years ago: “Carnage and Culture”. VDH makes the point that soldiers of western-style democracies ultimately fight better than those from despotic or authoritarian regimes for a series of reasons he explores. This dynamic seems to hold up in the 67 war. That said, in the Steven’s defence, we only asked him to write a brief “listicle” about the Six Day War and to keep it below 1,000 words. The format doesn’t leave much room for in-depth analysis. In any case, we welcome your comments.

  2. gabrel gallegos
    14 May, 2016 at 12:21 am

    GOD is real and will always protect his people (jews) i am a Christian and i would love to go to the land where my GOD lived and taught his people before he went to his kingdom of heaven

  3. Gabriel Gallegos
    14 May, 2016 at 12:23 am

    gabriel gallegos

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